Sunday, March 31, 2013

Protocol, Cohesion and Sacrifice in "They Were Expendable"

My favorite John Ford movie, and my favorite World War II film, is "They Were Expendable" (1945).  I never tire of seeing it and watch it every Memorial Day weekend.  I've always had an affinity for movies and TV shows set in the U.S. Navy that focus on the Pacific Theatre of the War.  "They Were Expendable" has always stood out as a class act in the genre because of its emphasis on character and nuance.  Even though there is plenty of action, it can't be defined as a pure action film.  The movie has a very relaxed, episodic structure as it follows the men of the United States Navy's 3rd Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron in the early days of the war.  What also strikes me about the movie is that it's not a film that follows our protagonists, and the Allied effort in the war, as they go from strength to strength.  The movie has the courage to demonstrate moments of defeat, disaster, and disappointment as the personnel depicted in the story attempt to push back Japanese advancement in the Pacific.  It has a serious, but not heavy-handed, tone that gives it a sense of gravitas that is not always present in other World War II movies.

Robert Montgomery stars as Lt. John "Brick" Brickley, Commander of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three based in the Cavite province of the Philippines in Manila Bay.  At the start of the film, Brickley and his second in-command Lt., J.G. Rusty Ryan (John Wayne) are frustrated because Navy leadership do not have faith in the efficacy of the torpedo boats.  However, news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor provides Brick and Rusty an opportunity to demonstrate what the boats are truly capable of.  After disappointment that their initial orders are to patrol the bay and standby for messenger duty, the Squadron begins to distinguish themselves when they shoot down three Japanese planes that have attacked the island and destroyed a majority of the base.  During the battle against the Japanese planes, Rusty badly injures his right hand.  Despite this, the squadron is still assigned to messenger duty on the island of Bataan.  While there, Brick orders Rusty to medical treatment at the military hospital on Corregidor when Rusty's injuries develop into blood poisoning in his arm.  As a result Rusty, and the personnel on his boat, must sit it out as Brick and another torpedo boat are assigned to sink a Japanese cruiser that is patrolling Bataan and shelling Allied positions on the island.  While in the hospital, Rusty meets and falls in love with level-headed, no-nonsense Army nurse Lt. Sandy Davyss (Donna Reed).

Rusty eventually recovers and returns to duty as the Torpedo Boat Squadron continues to prove their mettle as they work to thwart Japanese efforts in the Pacific.  Brick and Rusty are given their most important assignment yet when they are ordered to transport General MacArthur, his family, and other key military personnel to Mindanao.  However, Brick receives orders that a majority of his enlisted personnel must stay behind in Bataan and help the Army hold back the Japanese on land.  Rusty phones Sandy to bid farewell before he leaves Bataan, but is unable to finish his phone call when Sandy is ordered off the phone by military personnel who are dismantling the phone lines so that they can move South.  Brick and Rusty successfully bring MacArthur to Mindanao and are eventually assigned to sink a Japanese cruiser on its way to Corregidor.  They succeed in their mission, but both Brick and Rusty's boats end up separated, with Rusty's boat eventually destroyed from Japanese aerial assault.  Meanwhile, Rusty learns that American forces have surrendered at Bataan, and wonders about the fate of both Sandy and the squadron's enlisted personnel who stayed to help the Army fight the Japanese.  By this point, Brick and Rusty have proven to Navy leadership the importance of the torpedo boats and receive orders to head first to Australia and then eventually back to the United States to help train a new squadron of torpedo boat personnel.  As they reluctantly fly out of the last plane leaving the Philippines, they ponder the fate of their squadron as well as all the other American military personnel left behind.

What distinguishes "They Were Expendable" from other World War II movies are the beautifully nuanced moments and characters that director John Ford and screenwriter Frank Wead, a retired Naval aviator, have weaved throughout the film.  People who have never seen "They Were Expendable" might dismiss it as a John Wayne starring vehicle, but Wayne shares equal screen time in the film with Robert Montgomery, who is the film's co-leading character.  The versatile, level-headed Montgomery, who should be remembered by short-sighted movie and TV fans as much more than just Elizabeth Montgomery's father, is terrific as Lt. Brickley.  He strikes a good contrast with the larger-than-life Wayne by demonstrating Brickley's calm, quiet, diplomatic leadership qualities.  Brickley has a maturity about him that is refreshing compared to other characters in war movies.  Rather than being a presumptuous hot-head eager to prove the worth of both himself and his squadron, Brickley quietly accepts disappointing and unchallenging orders rather than be insubordinate and disrespectful of military protocol.

Montgomery is superb in the scene, right after the squadron has shot down three Japanese planes that have attacked the base at Cavite, when he receives word that Admiral Blackwell (Charles Trowbridge) wants to speak to him.  Brickley excitedly goes to see the Admiral, expecting him to issue orders for the torpedo boat squadron to engage a Japanese task force moving into Lingayen Gulf, only to learn that the Admiral wants them to use the boats to deliver messages between Manila and Corregidor.  Rather than overplay the scene, Montgomery subtly demonstrates Brickley's disappointment by first staring intently and reacting in a deadpan manner to the orders, and then blinks his eyes just once to project the extent to which Brickley is crestfallen by the assignment.  In this instance, one gesture says a thousand words.  Brickley calmly listens as the Admiral explains, "That task force will land.  You and I can't stop it...Listen, son you and I are professionals.  If the manager says 'Sacrifice' we lay down a bunt and let somebody else hit the home runs...Our job is to lay down that sacrifice."  Brickley doesn't try to play hero by arguing with the Admiral because Ford and Montgomery, who both served in the Navy during the war, clearly understand that respecting military protocol and maintaining a calm perspective of the larger picture are of paramount importance in these circumstances.

Throughout the movie are sequences of the Torpedo Boat Squadron awaiting orders to engage in combat, rather than depicting scene-after-scene of action.  This gives "They Were Expendable" a relaxed quality that allows Ford an opportunity to develop the relationships of the characters in the movie.  I particularly liked the way Ford demonstrates the different cultures and dynamics of the officer and the enlisted personnel.  Unlike other war movies, which do not make as much of an effort to demonstrate the distinction between officer and enlisted, "They Were Expendable" makes it clear that the two groups co-exist in a separate world apart from one another. The opening sequence at the officer's club, with the officers wearing their choker white uniforms and dancing with beautiful women in an attractive nightclub/restaurant setting is intercut with the scene at a local bar where the enlisted men are celebrating the impending retirement of Doc (Jack Pennick), the squadron's medic.  The polite formality of the social atmosphere in the officer's club is contrasted with the warmer and more exuberant celebration of the enlisted personnel at the bar.  You see how both groups of personnel have their own chain of command and traditions that complement one another in ways that are rarely demonstrated in most movies set in the military (which oft-times focuses mainly on the officers, as they are purportedly considered more "glamorous" by Hollywood).


Ford also dramatizes a degree of competitiveness among the enlisted personnel, demonstrated by the scene when Chief Boatswain Mate Mulcahey (Ward Bond) attempts to share anecdotes concerning his boat crew's combat with the Japanese cruiser patrolling Bataan with Rusty's boat crew.  Rusty's boat crew got left behind as the boat Mulcahey serves on is sent in its place to help sink the Japanese cruiser when Rusty is ordered by Brickley into the hospital because of the worsening injuries on his hand.  Rusty's crew yanks Mulcahey's chain and prevent him from boasting by responding to each of his anecdotes with feigned disinterest, "Pick up any chow?...Oh, I forgot to tell you, Mick, your laundry's drying.  Came out swell...Youse guys was late for breakfast too.  It was wonderful...Yeah, cupcakes with raisins," which only serve to frustrate Mulcahey.  Mulcahey returns the favor later when Rusty's crew, who are now excitedly sharing anecdotes after they return from combat with the Japanese, is interrupted by an annoyed Mulcahey who throws back in their face, "We had cupcakes for breakfast!  With raisins."  We see during these moments how the crew members of each individual boat in the squadron attempt to distinguish themselves from one another in a competitive manner that still allows the entire squadron to remain a cohesive whole.

Ford even takes time to demonstrate the friendly tension between officer and enlisted during the scene, after Brick's squadron successfully transport MacArthur to Mindanao, where junior officer Ensign Gardner (Marshall Thompson) attempts to notify the enlisted that they've been awarded the Silver Star for gallantry by MacArthur.  The enlisted personnel are too busy trying to fix one of the boats, or laughing about how the squadron's black cat stowed away on one of their boats during the operation, to pay the increasingly frustrated Gardner any attention.  This follows-up on an earlier scene in the movie when Gardner is inspecting the kitchen and drinks a ladle of dishwater, thinking that it is soup, only to have Doc shake his head and dismissively mutter under his breath "Ensigns!"  In depicting this friendly competitiveness amongst the officer and enlisted personnel, Ford helps to develop the personalities and relationships amongst these characters with a refreshingly nuanced level of detail.  It demonstrates the extent to which these characters are able to retain their sense of individuality even within the inherent conformity that is required in order to serve in the military.

Ford further underscores the line of demarcation between officer and enlisted personnel during the brief scene where the enlisted are waiting outside as Brick, Rusty, and the other officers are inside strategizing how to sink the Japanese cruiser patrolling Bataan.  It's a brief moment, but it helps to demonstrate how the enlisted are left out of certain aspects of the decision making process in the military and must follow the orders given to them by the officers.  But there is no complaint, frustration, or insubordination among the enlisted as they accept this protocol as part of the reality of their service, the same way Brick must quietly accept disappointing orders issued to him by Admiral Blackwell.  Ford demonstrates, with little vignettes and subtle touches such as these throughout "They Were Expendable," the importance of respecting the chain of command in the military, and how traditions such as these help to develop a sense of cohesion so that the military personnel never becomes distracted or muddled in their efforts to defeat the Japanese.  Even though Ford underscores the distinction between officer and enlisted in "They Were Expendable," what's amazing is how, in the end, the squadron still operates as a cohesive whole despite (or, perhaps, because of) the differences in the classes of military personnel.

But I don't want to give the impression that "They Were Expendable" is a movie that lauds protocol and conformity above all other qualities in its characters.  Ford also goes a long way to demonstrate that a level of passion and spontaneity can also be useful, as exemplified in John Wayne's impatient Rusty.  With Rusty's character, Ford demonstrates how, in specific occasions, the ability to think outside the box helps to ensure that military protocol and conformity never turns into complacency.  Rusty, like Brickley, gets frustrated by the unchallenging, disappointing orders issued by Navy leadership.  At the start of the film, when Admiral Blackwell seems unimpressed by the capabilities of the torpedo boats, we see Rusty at the bar in the officer's club drafting a request to be reassigned to a destroyer, where he feels his talents might be better utilized.  However, Rusty remains a team player and, upon learning of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, tears up the request he is drafting and immediately reports for duty with his squadron.  Rusty is much more vocal in his frustration of Blackwell's orders that the squadron be utilized as a messenger service, but he has enough regard for the chain of command that he does not disrespect those orders.  He never becomes arrogant and presumes to know better than those in command.  Instead, he impetuously kicks a can on the ground in frustration, which inspires Brickley to also take out his frustration by kicking another can nearby.

Rusty's eagerness to be utilized in a substantive manner in the war helps ensure that Brickley never becomes complacent with his squadron.  Brickley respectfully continues to advocate on behalf of his motor torpedo boat squadron so that Admiral Blackwell remains aware of them when he finally has an assignment that is specially suited to their capabilities.  Rusty continually challenges Brickley throughout the movie so that the more senior officer always remains innovative and resourceful in thinking of ways to best utilize the talents of his squadron.  When Admiral Blackwell finally issues orders for the squadron to take the torpedo boats out to sink the Japanese cruiser patrolling Bataan, Brickley responds to this validating moment not with cheers and excitement, but a calm, slight smile as he rhetorically asks Rusty, in the presence of the Admiral, "I think one boat, don't you, Mr. Ryan?" only to have Rusty slyly respond "No, I think two boats, Mr. Brickley" to subtly demonstrate to the Admiral how both men are pleased with these new orders.  John Wayne's work in "They Were Expendable" is comparatively more overt than Robert Montgomery's characterization, but his performance beautifully complements Montgomery's low-key approach throughout the movie.  Ford demonstrates the extent to which Brickley and Rusty remain a brilliant team, and how Brickley's calm and reasoned leadership is beautifully balanced by Rusty's passion and initiative.  They work together to help ensure that Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three never becomes too contemplative or too impetuous for its own good.

This balance between maturity and passion is exemplified by the scene at the very end when Rusty and Brickley are about to be flown out of the last plane out of the Philippines.  A guilt-ridden Rusty almost gives up his seat on the plane to friendly Army Air Corps Captain Carter nicknamed "Ohio" (Louis Jean Heydt) whom he met while being treated in the hospital.  Rusty does not want to leave behind the other American military personnel in the Philippines, who are facing a grim fate, but Brickley sternly reminds him that his act of sacrifice would be selfish in the larger picture because it prevents him from returning to the United States to help train new squadrons of torpedo boat personnel to fight the Japanese.  Brickley simply states, "Rusty!  Who are you working for?  Yourself?"  Ford demonstrates, in that short scene, how important it is for military personnel such as Rusty to set aside their own personal feelings and interests and remember that they are merely a cog in a much larger wheel than themselves.  In this instance, true sacrifice is much more than merely laying down one's own life.

The beauty of "They Were Expendable" is that Ford acknowledges the sacrifice of not just people like Brickley and Rusty, but other people who have a major stake in Allied victory as well.  I liked the way Ford incorporated Donna Reed's likeable Army nurse Sandy into the proceedings in a way that was not contrived and remained believable throughout.  Reed's Sandy, like Brickley and Rusty, is a dedicated, no-nonsense professional who is good at her job and keeps her cool throughout the movie.  Donna Reed was only 24 years old when she filmed "They Were Expendable" and her performance reminds one of how comparatively immature most portrayals of women in their early 20s are in movies and television these days.  Reed portrays Sandy with an intelligence and internal strength and calmness throughout the movie that helps the character to remain contemporary almost 68 years later.  When Rusty checks in to the military hospital to have his infected arm treated, she doesn't take any guff from him, and retains a bemused attitude towards this bull in a China shop who has suddenly showed up at her post.  Sandy puts Rusty in his place by telling him, "You better lie down and take it easy.  You've got a temperature of 103...You Navy boys always run about two degrees above normal.  Must be that time you spend at sea."  An incensed Rusty asks Sandy what her rank is and learns that she is a second lieutenant.  Rusty reminds her, "Well, I'm a j.g. so watch your language!"  Sandy remains unflappable and responds with "Oh, I thought you were a motorcycle cop.  Despite your gold braid, you don't tell us.  We tell you.  So lie down."  She orders Rusty to unfasten his pants so that she and the orderly can pull them off from under the covers so he can rest.

During the sequence when Sandy helps the military doctor operate on wounded casualties from Bataan, as enemy aircraft continue to attack from above, Reed plays the scene calmly, without pity or revulsion for her patients' wounds, as Ford gives her awe-inspiring close-ups showing her hair pulled back, wearing a baseball cap and no make-up, while the lights flicker on and off, that help to demonstrate her calmness, courage and professionalism under trying circumstances.  Sandy's sturdy reaction helps to demonstrate how this moment is about taking care of her patients, not about herself.  Rusty witnesses Sandy's selfless dedication to the wounded from afar and begins to fall in love with her as he realizes he has met his match.  However, Rusty still doesn't give her an easy time when she invites him to attend a dance being held for the nurses and the wounded personnel.  Rusty snaps at her, "Listen, sister, I don't dance.  And I can't take time out now to learn!  All I want to do now is get out of here."  Rather than getting emotional or begin bickering with Rusty, Sandy silently turns and walks away, which demonstrates she has no time to waste on Rusty's childish immaturity.  Ford cuts to a shot showing Sandy and the other exhausted nurses smoking and walking down a long corridor towards their quarters to prepare for the dance.  With one silent shot, Ford demonstrates the loneliness, sacrifice and dedication of these nurses which parallels the men who have gone into combat.  To Ford, these nurses are as brave, and contribute as much, as the men.  That's why it is so devastating when "They Were Expendable" ends without any word as to Sandy's ultimate fate.  We surmise she is among the American personnel captured at Bataan and wonder, as Rusty does, what will happen to her.  Ford courageously doesn't give us a traditional happy ending to this appealing romance, allowing our imagination to determine what will happen to Sandy and Rusty.  I've always felt that Sandy survives the war and she and Rusty are eventually reunited and given a chance in postwar peacetime to develop a relationship with each other.  After everything both characters have experienced, they deserve it.

Ford also acknowledges the sacrifice made by the younger enlisted personnel with the character of Willie (William McKeever Riley), the youngest member of the squadron.  Willie is mostly assigned to mess duty but is one of the enlisted men ordered to help the Army fight the Japanese on land in Bataan.  We see Willie at the start of the movie when the enlisted men are celebrating Doc's retirement with a toast.  As most of the men drink a toast to Doc with beers, Ford silently cuts to Willie drinking a glass of milk, a gesture that demonstrates the age disparity between Willie and the other members of the squadron.  When Japanese aircraft attack the base at Manila Bay, Ford cuts to a scene showing Willie peeling potatoes in the squadron's kitchen.  Upon the realization that they are being attacked, the much older men pick Willie up by the shoulders and rush him to safety.  When Brickley acknowledges, after the attack, in front of the younger enlisted personnel that they don't have a monopoly on being scared, Ford cuts to a close-up of a shaken Willie, feeling reassured and validated by his commanding officer that his reaction to the attack is human and to be expected.  When Brickley bids farewell to his enlisted personnel who remain behind at Bataan, he reminds them "You older men, with longer service records, take care of the kids," Ford cuts to a shot of Willie standing proudly amongst his fellow enlisted men.  Right before he shoves off for Mindanao with General MacArthur, Rusty shakes Willie's hand and reminds him to "Be a good kid."  With this character, Ford acknowledges the contribution of young enlisted personnel who have volunteered to serve their country during times of war.  Willie's fate, along with that of Sandy and the older enlisted personnel left on Bataan, is also left unresolved by Ford in order to remind viewers that genuine sacrifice and heroism can come from unexpected sources.

The final group of individuals that Ford takes time to acknowledge throughout the movie are the people of the Philippines who were valuable allies to the United States throughout the War in the Pacific.  A few politically correct film reviewers have incorrectly identified the nightclub singer and the hostess who appear in the officer's club party at the start of the film as purportedly Japanese-Americans.  They opined that this was meant to be Ford's acknowledgement of the patriotism of Japanese-Americans who were unjustly placed in internment camps during World War II, since the nightclub singer openly weeps and begins singing "My Country 'tis of Thee" and the hostess is clearly saddened to hear about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  However, I don't know how they came to this conclusion because my understanding of the scene is that it's set in the Philippines since the opening title card at the start of the movie places the setting of the location of Brickley's squadron as being based in the Cavite province near Manila Bay.  I believe that Ford was acknowledging the personal stake that Filipinos had in the war rather than underscoring Japanese-American patriotism.  The Japanese-American reading of this scene appears to be wishful thinking on the part of politically correct critics more than anything else. 

Ford's acknowledgement of the significant contribution of Filipinos to the war effort is underscored by the fact that the nightclub singer is played by Pacita Todtod, a Filipino-American from Northern California who wrote to then-Secretary of the War Henry Stimson and successfully advocated for Filipino-Americans to be allowed to serve in the U.S. military during World War II after they had initially been rejected.  (Todtod also entertained for the USO during the war.)  Ford also includes the character of Steward, Third Class Benny Lecoco (Alex Havier), a Filipino-American, as a member of Brickley's Torpedo Boat Squadron to further underscore the contribution that Filipinos and Filipino-Americans made to the war.  There is also the haunting close-up of the Filipino woman clutching a handkerchief who appears deeply moved and despondent as she bids farewell to the wounded American personnel who are being taken by the torpedo boat crew to seek medical treatment at the end of the sequence when the Japanese planes attack Cavite and Manila Bay.  During the sequence at the hospital on Corregidor when Sandy is helping the doctor operate on wounded personnel as Japanese aircraft continue to attack from above, Ford cuts to close-ups of both wounded American and Filipino military personnel.  All of these nuances, which expresses empathy both for and by Filipinos and Filipino Americans, help to underscore that they were in this fight with the rest of us and, as such, deserve to be acknowledged accordingly.

"They Were Expendable" remains a genuine Hollywood classic because of its ability to transcend being merely a World War II action movie.  It is a character study of individuals rising to the occasion under difficult circumstances, as well as a social history of the different cross sections of society, and of the world at-large, who successfully came together for a common purpose.  John Ford intersperses moments of action, comedy, romance, drama, tragedy, poignancy, sacrifice, friendship, and camaraderie so that the movie never becomes one-dimensional and successfully operates on several different levels simultaneously.  Ford and director of photography Joseph August beautifully photograph "They Were Expendable" in a moody, shaded, noir-tinged black and white that, instead of demonstrating moral ambiguity as such lighting typically does, reflects the tragedy and death the protagonists are continually facing.  John Wayne and Donna Reed are touchingly honest and direct in their romantic scenes with one another so that the Rusty/Sandy subplot never feels contrived, and the scenes of action and epic drama demonstrating the torpedo boats in combat with the Japanese are suspenseful and awe-inspiring.  The film also has one of the most moving and poignant endings ever in a Hollywood war movie.  When Ensigns Gardner and Cross (Cameron Mitchell) finally arrive before the last plane leaves the Philippines, two other officers, Army Major James Morton (Leon Ames) and the aforementioned Army Air Corps Captain nicknamed "Ohio" must forfeit their seats on the plane and stay behind.  When Gardner and Cross learn that no other planes are coming in to take the remaining personnel out of the Philippines, they slowly realize to their horror that their arrival may have sent Major Morton and "Ohio" to certain, eventual death at the hands of the Japanese.  Brickley reminds them that the sacrifice of Morton and "Ohio" is for the greater good because they must all go back to the United States to help train additional torpedo boat personnel so that they can eventually return and help save their colleagues by defeating the Japanese.  When Brickley says to Gardner and Cross, "Look, son, we're going home to do a job.  And that job is to get ready to come back.  Check?" he has come full-circle and has himself become Admiral Blackwell, reminding the personnel under his command of the larger picture that is at stake.  It's at this point you realize the title "They Were Expendable" is not a reflection of helplessness, defeatism or cynicism, but actually demonstrates how nobility, integrity, and hope are the hallmark of individual sacrifice. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

How Farrah Fawcett Revived Her Career with "Murder in Texas"

Farrah Fawcett's pristine public image as America's Golden Girl of the 1970s has been slightly tarnished in the last few years due to her erratic public behavior in the 1990s, tabloid stories of her troubled family life with her son and her long-time lover Ryan O'Neal, and regressive appearances in Playboy magazine that have helped to undermine the successful strides she made in the 1980s and early 1990s to prove her worth as an actress.  When she passed away from cancer in 2009, obituaries touted her as a pin-up celebrity famous for her legendary bathing suit poster than for her numerous accomplishments as an actress.  This is a shame because, even before she redefined her acting reputation in the 1980s, Farrah Fawcett was always a competent, professional actress on-screen from the moment she started her career as a Screen Gems television contract player in the early 1970s, continuing during her one-season tenure on "Charlie's Angels," and on through to her work in flop feature films such as "Somebody Killed Her Husband" (1978), "Sunburn" (1979), and "Saturn 3" (1980).  She was not a celebrity famous just for being famous.  It was with her remarkably nuanced performance in the TV movie "The Burning Bed" (1984) that Farrah Fawcett appeared to have silenced her naysayers and demonstrated what she was truly capable of as an actress.

However, Fawcett began making strides to improve her public image even before "The Burning Bed."  Fawcett's first challenging dramatic role, and one that helped pave the way for her to be cast in "The Burning Bed," was as the real-life Houston socialite and accomplished equestrian horsewoman Joan Robinson Hill in the two-part NBC TV movie "Murder in Texas" (1981).  A dramatization of the events surrounding the untimely death of Mrs. Hill in 1969, which some have suspected was caused by her plastic surgeon husband Dr. John Hill, "Murder in Texas" was a surprising change-of-pace for Fawcett.  I recall the advertisements in print and on television for this TV movie touted it by saying "See Farrah Fawcett as you've never seen her before!"  Usually, such slogans reflect dramatic hyperbole, but it was earned in Fawcett's case.  People have disputed the factual inaccuracies of the narrative in the movie, which is understandable for any movie that purports to tell the story of real-life people.  As such, any analysis of the characters and storylines in "Murder in Texas" herein pertain only to the movie and not to the facts and circumstances surrounding the case.

Joan Robinson Hill (Fawcett) and her handsome plastic surgeon husband Dr. John Hill (Sam Elliott) are a glamorous, enviable couple from Houston's prestigous River Oaks community.  Joan is an acclaimed horsewoman and the daughter of larger-than-life oilman Ash Robinson (Andy Griffith) who loves his only child deeply while, at the same time, exerts a domineering influence over their marriage and upon his son-in-law.  John and Joan are already deeply unhappy when he embarks on a torrid affair with attractive divorcee Ann Kurth (Katharine Ross).  Ash, furious at John's attempts to dissolve his marriage with his daughter so that he can be with Ann, promises to destroy the comfort and wealth his son-in-law has become accustomed to, and threatens to drag Ann publicly through the mud, if John ever leaves his daughter.  John appears to be making efforts to reconcile with his wife when Joan suddenly becomes violently ill, with John blithely indifferent to her suffering.  When he finally takes her to the hospital, he takes her to a small medical facility, passing several larger ones along the way.  She dies not long after being admitted.  In the aftermath of her passing, a grieving Ash presses for a criminal investigation into his daughter's death.  John marries Ann, who soon learns he has a dark side to his personality she had not previously suspected.  John confesses to Ann that he poisoned Joan and tries to kill her.  Ann separates from John and testifies against him when he finally goes to trial.  However, when she testifies on the stand that he tried to murder her, a mistrial is declared.  Ann and John divorce and he soon remarries again.  When he returns from his honeymoon, John is attacked by a masked gunman in his house and killed.  Ash is accused of arranging the hit against John, but charges are never brought against him.  Years later, Ann is at home and receives an anonymous call from someone playing classic music over the phone, just like John used to...

As I said before, this synopsis for "Murder in Texas" pertains to the movie and should not be considered a summary of the actual facts surrounding this case.  John Hill was never convicted for his wife's death, and his son has maintained through the years that he never believed his father murdered his mother.  As such, the movie should be conservatively viewed as an entertaining piece of fiction and not a documentary.  Nevertheless, "Murder in Texas" remains a well-acted, well-made TV movie with vibrant, interesting characters and situations throughout.  The movie makes 1960s Houston look like a fascinating, lively culture and community, and the production design has an understated elegance that captures the period milieu in a believable manner.  It's not surprising that the creator of "Dallas" has admitted that he was inspired to create that series after reading one of the books written about this case.  Sam Elliott is charmingly handsome and chilling as John, Andy Griffith is both imposing and touching as the tyrannical yet loving Ash, and Katharine Ross is likeable and sympathetic as Ann.  However, it's Farrah Fawcett who dominates this film with her warm and vulnerable presence.  In the second-half of the film, after the character of Joan has died, you still think of Fawcett throughout and her absence in the latter portions casts a dark shadow over the storyline.  Coming after "Charlie's Angels" and the various feature films she made in the late 1970s, Joan is a very different character for Fawcett.  Up to that time, she usually played sunny, confident, and happy characters, as exemplified by her iconic performance as private detective Jill Munroe on "Charlie's Angels."  Prior to "Murder in Texas," Fawcett had a "can-do" quality as an actress that reflected her larger-than-life image in the 1970s.

In "Murder in Texas," Fawcett has a more understated, subdued glamor and quality that was a revelation to viewers and critics and made her appear much more human and down-to-earth than ever before.  She lowered the pitch of her speaking voice, which used to make her sound breathy and light-weight, and brought maturity, gravitas and intelligence to her performance.  Fawcett's Joan is a good, kind person who has spent her entire life defined as either Ash's daughter, or John's wife, despite her equestrian accomplishments, and lacks self-confidence and a healthy sense of self-worth because she's in love with a man who doesn't love her back.  Her persistent chain-smoking throughout the movie reflects her nervous anxiety about her marriage.  This was shocking to see in a movie back in 1981, as Fawcett was still considered one of the most beloved and desired women in the world.  To see her in a movie where she is neglected and despised by her husband was simply unthinkable at the time.  And, yet, Fawcett projects vibrancy and charisma as Joan so that the character never comes across as a self-pitying wet-blanket.  Fawcett's Joan has a feisty temperament and refreshing flashes of anger when she's finally fed up with John's indifference and infidelity that make it clear to the viewer that she can be a formidable, impressive force to be reckoned with.  In one scene, when John and Joan are hosting friends and, for once, Joan is enjoying herself, she becomes irritated when his beeper goes off, which usually allows him to leave her for hours at a time.  Fawcett's exasperated Joan snaps, "I knew it!...I hear that damn thing in my sleep!  Come on!  Whenever I'm happy, close to having a good time, I hear 'Beep! Beep! Beep!' I can't stand it!"  Sam Elliot's John may resent Joan and take her for granted, but the viewer never does.  We see all the qualities in her that Elliot's John does not and that makes her ultimate death all the more tragic.

Throughout "Murder in Texas," there are very touching moments that show Joan's humanity and vulnerability and her hopes that her marriage will work out.  Despite her equestrian accomplishments she admits to Ash, "What the Hell am I doing?!  Why am I going off to a horse show when things are the way they are with John and me?!...You know, I'm not happy anymore unless I'm in a ring on a good horse...When I'm not in the ring, when I'm not riding...I get so lonely....Pa, am I ever, ever gonna grow up?"  Fawcett and Griffith are very endearing together and have an easy, natural chemistry as father and daughter in this scene that makes it a pleasure to watch.  In one of Fawcett's best moments in the film, Joan is playing cards with her girlfriends in John's lavish music room while her husband is listening to classical music in the background.  To the discomfort of her friends, she openly complains about the problems in their marriage, as she deals the cards, and says aloud "I'm tired of always, always being the dummy."  When John changes the record and asks her to dance, Joan lowers her guard and melts like butter in his arms.  In this romantic moment, Fawcett effectively conveys the extent to which Joan deeply loves her husband.  Later in the film, when Joan starts to become sick, she happily tells a friend about how kind John was to her the night before and how it has raised her hopes that her marriage will work out, "I don't know, it's so strange.  I feel sick, but I feel so much better about things between me and John...Yeah, he was so sweet last night.  I think everything's gonna be all right."  Fawcett delivers the line in a sincere, heartfelt manner that tugs at the viewer because we know that things are ultimately not going to be all right for Joan.

When Joan becomes sick, Fawcett admirably downplays the glamour and allows herself to become as unkempt and disheveled as possible in order to portray the agony and pain Joan experienced as she became ill and passed away.  Fawcett has several good scenes with actress Royce Wallace, who plays Joan's concerned maid Wilma.  When Wilma helps Joan into the bathroom, the wealthy woman confides in her housekeeper, "I don't know what's the matter with me.  I've never been this way before.  Like a baby, so helpless."  Later, when Joan asks Wilma "Am I gonna die?" the feisty and caring maid clutches Joan's hands and the two pray together.  When John finally takes Joan to the hospital, she blows a kiss out the back window of the car to Wilma, in gratitude for her caring and concern during Joan's time of need.  Fawcett conveys Joan's inherent decency and appreciation for Wilma's presence in her life, which helps to underscore how Joan, despite her wealth and privilege, has no sense of entitlement and has a sincere appreciation for all the people in her life.  When I watch the scenes of a violently ill Fawcett in "Murder in Texas," I flashback to Fawcett's horrifying 2009 documentary on NBC depicting her real-life battle with cancer.  These scenes appear to foreshadow Fawcett's real-life suffering almost three decades later and underscore the extent to which she was committed to portraying Joan Robinson Hill as seriously and sympathetically as possible.

What I recall the most from my first viewing of "Murder in Texas" in 1981 was the fact that Fawcett pulled her famous mane of blonde hair back into a pony tail, as the real-life Joan Robinson Hill was known for wearing her hair in that simple style.  Because Fawcett's feathered hairstyle from the 1970s was such an iconic part of her screen image, it was simply startling to see her in a role where her hair was not as prominent an accoutrement to her appearance.  At the time, it took me a long time to get used to watching her in the movie looking so differently but, in 2013, her ponytail has aged quite elegantly and allows one to appreciate Fawcett's striking features, particularly her prominent nose and high forehead.  We realize the extent to which her hair distracted one from fully appreciating Fawcett's Southern earthiness, and I believe Fawcett was never lovelier on-screen than with this atypical hairstyle.  Even though it is not as well-remembered as "The Burning Bed," one cannot underestimate the importance of "Murder in Texas" on Farrah Fawcett's career.  It helped to demonstrate to critics, audiences, and Hollywood that Fawcett was no flash-in-the-pan, but a talented and under-utilized actress who was looking for the right roles that would accentuate her strengths in projecting earthy intelligence, as well as disarming warmth and humanity.  While I can't say for certain that Fawcett accurately portrayed what Joan Robinson Hill was like in real life, I would make the case that she certainly gives one a positive impression of what Mrs. Hill might have been like with her sincere and sympathetic performance. 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Giving Joey Heatherton Her Due as a Musical Entertainer

It is the consequence of getting older that one finds that their tastes change and that they no longer enjoy the things they once did when they were younger.  Ann-Margret is one such example in my case.  When I was younger, I thought Ann-Margret was dazzling, exciting and talented.  She seemed to have it all: looks, acting ability, as well as dancing and vocal talent.  But, as I've gotten older, I now realize that Ann-Margret, while still a good actress and dancer, was a very mediocre singer.  Check out some of her recordings on YouTube and you'll find that she had a very weak voice with little range to it.  It's amazing she had as many LP albums as she did during the 1960s, because she rarely nailed any of the songs she recorded.  Her singing voice had a distinct vibrato that prevented her from really getting to the heart of a song.  It's only when she was dancing on-screen in accompaniment with the songs that she really lit up.  On their own, Ann-Margret's recordings don't hold up at all as legitimate works of music and only go to demonstrate that her talents had limits.  Even though she remained a talented dancer, she also always had strange, quirky ticks where she would add a step or a gesture or a weird facial expression that was meant to be provocative, but now just seems tacky.  Because she appeared to be trying too hard to please the audience by being as sexy and provocative as she could be, Ann-Margret had the opposite effect at times of coming across as little more than an overly enthusiastic high school cheerleader.  She did not seem to have the instinct or restraint as an entertainer to know when not to over-indulge her worst mannerisms.

When I was younger and thought Ann-Margret was great, I used to dismiss Joey Heatherton as a "poor-man's Ann-Margret."  This had to do with the fact that Heatherton never really had a distinguished acting career, and mostly made her name on TV variety shows in the 1960s and 1970s.  Since I had not seen her in those TV variety shows, I dismissed her without really giving her a chance.  Thanks to YouTube, however, with generous people posting clips of Heatherton's appearances on various variety shows throughout the 1960s and 1970s, I now understand her innate appeal as an entertainer.  In short, Joey Heathrton was a dazzling entertainer.  She was every bit as good and accomplished a dancer as Ann-Margret, but she seemed to have better instincts with regards to what moves, gestures and steps she chose to incorporate in her performances.  And even though I never cared for her famous short haircut in the late 1960s/early 1970s, she seemed less made-up than Ann-Margret was in terms of her style and fashion choices.  All of these aspects combine to make Heatherton's work as an entertainer more effective and impressive than Ann-Margret's when you compare their musical and variety show performances side-by-side on YouTube.

But what really sets Joey Heatherton apart as a performer compared to Ann-Margret is the fact that Heatherton was a very good singer who could belt out an emotional tune with the best of them.  No doubt there is indeed a campy and kitschy quality to Heatherton, but there's also genuine talent on display as well.  With Ann-Margret's singing, there's always an adequate, sex-kittenish quality she brings to every song, but rarely were you ever moved by her vocal performances.  Her pleasant, but bland, cover of Henry Mancini's classic "Moon River" perfectly exemplifies Ann-Margret's musical shortcomings as she never really gets to the crux and soul of that song.  In contrast, Joey Heatherton could belt out a torch song with nuance and emotion that demonstrated her ability to put her heart and soul into a musical number.  In the 1973 ABC-TV variety special titled "Old Faithful," Heatherton gives an excellent performance singing "Someone to Watch Over Me" that is so good, it should silence any naysayers who think of her merely as a camp figure.  Even though her voice has a perfect pitch, it's not the sort of perfect pitch that lacks a human dimension.  Her high notes are awe-inspiring, but it's the low-notes where she really distinguishes herself with this song.  My late father, the Chinese opera musician, once told me that the mark of a great singer is not how they hit the high notes, because he felt they were easier, but how they manage to work through the low-notes of a song without their voice becoming distorted.  Heatherton is able to hit those low notes without her voice breaking or becoming garbled.  She gets to the essence of the song in a powerful, yet unaffected manner, that she earns the standing ovation she receives from the audience at the end of her performance.

Heatherton also did a memorable cover of Ferlin Husky's country classic "Gone" which became a minor hit single in 1972.  It was released as part of an LP entitled "The Joey Heatherton Album" from MGM Records.  Heatherton effectively re-imagined "Gone" as a power ballad with a horns, brass, and choral arrangement accompanying her that gives the song an almost gospel revival quality.  She conveys the joys and anguish of a once-powerful love that is now no more in a heartfelt, sincere manner.  When she sings "Since you've gone, my heart, my lips, my tear-dimmed eyes, a lonely soul within me cries" she evokes so much pain and sorrow from that simple verse that you feel like you're on a rollercoaster that has just jumped the tracks when you listen to it.  What's great about Heatherton's version of "Gone" is that she brought her own distinctive quality to a famous song without ruining one's memory of the original.  As such, Joey Heatherton's rendition of "Gone" complements, rather than denigrates, Ferlin Husky's original version of the song.  It may be Heatherton's musical masterpiece as an entertainer.

But it's Joey Heatherton's talents as a dancer that people remember her for and probably no number demonstrates how effectively she combined her vocal and dancing abilities than her performance of "The Road I Took To You (Pieces)" in the aforementioned Zero Mostel special.  Clad in a black leotard and high heels, in contrast to the garish costumes and accoutrement that Ann-Margret would wear in her musical performances on variety shows, Heatherton is the personification of simplicity as she performs this rousing and catchy pop song accompanied only by two male dancers wearing casual attire.  The choreography of the number is low-key, yet effective, as Heatherton ends up encompassing most of the set as she performs the song.  Incorporating the nearby props and furniture naturally and unobtrusively, Heatherton slinks around the set in a provocative, sexy manner that might be considered campy by some people, but which never becomes as embarrassingly tacky as it could have been had Ann-Margret performed it.  Heatherton has the confidence to let the song speak for itself without trying to oversell it to the audience.  (If Ann-Margret had performed this song, she would've added weird expressions and gestures, and used the props in a contrived manner, that would have detracted from the overall mood of the song.)

It may sound like I am harshly criticizing Ann-Margret here, but I am simply using her as a point-of-contrast to help highlight qualities in Joey Heatherton that have not been given their due.  No matter what I have discovered about Joey Heatherton's talents as a musical performer, however, the fact remains is that Ann-Margret is still a better actress who has enjoyed a more accomplished acting career than Heatherton.  Unfortunately, Heatherton's movie career never really took off, despite her TV variety show success, and her life has occasionally been plagued with unfortunate scandal.  Heatherton's one meaty film role, opposite Richard Burton, in Edward Dmytryk's bizarre version of "Bluebeard" (1972), received poor reviews.  However, I think her feisty and insolent performance in that movie is better than she is given credit for and demonstrates what her dramatic potential could have been as an actress.  At the very least, Heatherton should have had a more successful career as a recording artist than she did.  She should have worked more often with record producers who could have helped her select good material to release successful albums.  That might have helped her sustain her career as TV variety shows became extinct.  She has since become a virtual recluse in the last few years, a forgotten footnote in the annals of entertainment as her work in TV variety shows has not been well-remembered by later generations.  It's a shame because Joey Heatherton has genuine sex appeal, immense talent as a musical entertainer, and an appealing and natural screen presence.  Surely there has to be a second (or even third or fourth) act in store for this dynamic and talented entertainer.